Why cheap fashion must die

Most human endeavours are in some way aimed at improving the human existence. Be it through culture, engineering, medicine or other ways that make life easier, safer or more pleasurable, we progress as a species. I quite often feel a real sense of pride in observing the innovations in science and technology. The complexity and sheer dedication going into the work.

Yet, at this time of year when the fashion circus is hopping from place to place, media full of colour photos, the hype machine playing on all pipes and the fresh output from an industry full of creatives is displayed. To a chorus of sycophantic cheers.

Man Whispers Milan Mens Fashion Week Versace Autumn-Winter 2012 Runway Show_0570

And a wall of … yawns.

Let’s face it, to most of us the business of fashion is utterly useless and boring. A circus. A display of the inane, the desperate, the rehashed and the tedious. The amount of energy expunged on bringing out the new altogethers for the next season is astonishing. The cuts and colours, the embellishments and details, the originals and the shameless copies.

And what is the real purpose of fashion? To obsolete the product and sell more. Clothes in them self have no expiry date, if well made and cared for they can last almost infinitely. It’s harder to build in obsolescence in a garment than a flat-screen TV, so it becomes a case of convincing the buyers that last years finery is this years tat, and so it goes on.


And it’s either a case of seeing it all before, or so creative that it’s not actually a garment. And yet, where does almost all this effort get us? Is there much actual evolution, or is it like endlessly rerecording the same tired song?

And there is a reason for this endless circle: Humans do, in most cases, have a torso, two arms and two legs. Human evolution stuck to this format a fair old while back, and those producing garments grasped the concept of how to clothe this shape not long after it was settled upon. With variations, of course, we do appreciate the possibility of differentiating our style, and most of us don’t live in a totalitarian state that dictates we are all in uniform.


Taking a historical look we see that most of the important types garments are more than a hundred years old, often even more. Looking at historical garments we find similar cuts to today, but better materials and superior construction. Anyone interested in menswear should visit the Imperial War Museum in London and pay special attention to the uniforms. It’s the same stuff being rehashed and sold today. Which isn’t all that strange, as until humans grow more arms and dramatically alter their mode of moving, the design specification for clothes remains the same.

Today the trend has moved towards simpler cuts and labour saving construction, and more man-made fabrics, all in the name of saving time, and increasing profits. And the end result is the production of clothes that are little more than fodder for the landfill.

With the focus we have on sustainability we have today, shouldn’t we also be focusing on a little more long term thinking when it comes to clothes? How to make clothes that are actually better, longer-lasting, more pleasing to use and possibly even more environmentally friendly?


The solution: Cheap fashion must die.

A categorical and clear statement indeed. You may ask “Why?”, so let me lay it out for you.

What is “cheap fashion”? I am talking about the type of low-priced, short-lived and low quality garments you find in the typical high-street emporiums. The sort of garments that are churned out by thousands, carpet-bombing the market, so cheaply made that if they don’t sell out, it’s no huge loss to just dump them.


And from a consumers point of view they are so cheap to buy that they can be used a few times and discarded, or not used at all. They’re by no means a new innovation, they’ve been evolving since the 80’s or so, but have today reached a level where they need to be seen for what they are and the problems they bring.

What’s not to like about cheap garments? Surely this is just wonderful for the budget-conscious fashionista? On one level, yes, of course, being able to buy incredible cheap clothes is great. On every other level it’s terrible. We have to ask how a garment can be sold at full retail pricing in a shop, and yet be considered to be cheap. What costs go into making a piece of clothing?

cotton field

For starters we have the fabric. Typically cotton. Today the more savvy companies are seeing the advantage of offering organic cotton. A marketing advantage, surely, but also an important environmental concern. Traditionally grown cotton is considered the “dirtiest” crop you can grow, due to the high levels of insecticides, pesticides and fertilisers used in growing it, chemicals very hazardous to both the environment and the farmers. Cotton farmed like this is certainly cheap, but at what cost?

Organically grown cotton uses natural fertilisers and reduced levels of chemicals. The end result costs more, but given the benefits to the environment and the farmers,  it would appear to be a bargain. Comparing similar garments in non-organic and organic cotton shows the price is not dramatically higher for the organic variant.


The next part of the end cost is the cost of production. This consists of the factory and the workers, where we see a similar split as for the fabric. Low cost production consists of a simple, ill-equipped factory, with underpaid and overworked workers. I’ll not go into the issues of child labour, although this is likely a factor in many places. What we have are factories operating close to slave labour, cutting the margins to the bone, mass-producing cheap items for Western consumers. Yet production costs must factor in, fabric must be cut and sewn, factories run, shipments delivered.

Logistics is part three of the costs. The finished product has to be shipped, inventoried, delivered to shops. None of this is without cost. Maybe not much per item, but still a factor. And every hand that is involved wants their cut of the profit.

And when it is finally in the shop, the shop has to add in their margin. They have bills to cover and staff to pay. I believe they typically set their retail price at no less than twice the suppliers price. And on top of it all, there is VAT or similar on top of all of it.


So how can that t-shirt possibly only cost 5 pounds? Given that the VAT is 1 pound, the shopkeeper keeps 4 pounds. They paid 2 pounds for it from their supplier, who has shipped it from a factory in the Far East and paid maybe 1 pound for it. The factory had to buy the fabric, pay the worker, and cover their bills, and make a profit.

How is this even possible?

And would’t it be better all round if the garment was produced from sustainable organic cotton, by a factory that took proper care of it’s workers safety and healthy, made by workers that were paid a proper wage, and sold for a price that actually reflected it’s true value? And appreciated by a customer as a quality piece of clothing that will provide good service for a decent period of time?

If you got this far, you may also enjoy reading what I have to say about the Made in Britain movement!
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  • Antoine Becaglia (@AntoineBecaglia) 01/02/2014 at 13:07

    Another interesting blog post…whilst the title promised a more trivial / less serious write-up 😉

    • Well Dressed Dad 01/02/2014 at 13:34

      Thanks for the kind feedback. You inspired me to change the title back to the original working title!

  • WDG 01/02/2014 at 13:47

    My concern is not only the cheap fashion, but also the overpriced fashion. High end labels making clothes from the same poor material in the same shitty factories as any and every high-street brand. It´s important to be conscious not only about price but about the all over ethics of the brand you´re buying.

    Now, I´ve made a living by sewing. I know just how much time that goes into sourcing fabrics, designing patterns, cutting, washing and sewing. There´s no way I could make anything remotely as cheap as what you see in the stores today.

    This should also go for the food you buy… Who´s paying the price for cheap bacon?

  • James 01/02/2014 at 18:46

    What you are overlooking is the fact clothes are manufactured for profit. Clothes which last a lifetime is not really in the interest of the free market. Harmonious production would need to be planned rationally, not left to the anarchy of the profit motive. This would require an entirely different economic system – a system whereby production is democratically controlled according to the interests of the majority of society. It is in our interest to produce sustainable and long lasting clothing but that can only be achieved in a society where there is democratic control over the economy.

  • Brian in Alberta 01/02/2014 at 18:57

    The cheap cloths problem is not just a cheap imports from Asia (etc.) problem. Most of the workers who made those nice “Made in the U.S.A.” Redwings you bought recently are not making a living-wage. Certainly they are better off than a Chinese worker doing the same job but they still wouldn’t be able to support a family alone. For Redwing to be able to pay a living-wage they would have to charge a lot more for their products. Canada and the U.K. (and Norway?) may be somewhat better since there are programs such as universal health care that support low wage workers but it is still a tough go. This seems to be the way for most quality shoe makers. Have a look at the comments here:


    Now for some weasel words. I am not picking on Redwing. They are doing nothing different than most of the other manufactures in there market segment. Also I am not slagging you personally Nicholas for your purchasing choices. If I wanted to do that I would have to stop buying nice boots; and that is not going to happen! Actually I’m contributing to the problem by purchasing more than I need. And that is a whole other issue that affects most cloths enthusiasts.

    • James 01/02/2014 at 19:04

      This is my point, the profit motive is a straight jacket. We would need to be living under a completely different economic system to be free from the straight jacket of the profit motive. We would produce according to the interests of society as a whole, not a tiny section of society who control production for profit.

      Only under a system based on democratic rational planning could we produce long-lasting and sustainable clothing.

      Yes, we can produce sustainable and durable clothing under capitalism but it will always be a small proportion of the market as it is simply not profitable for mass production. The manufacturers primary motive is profit, they are not concerned with environmental factors etc.

      • Brian in Alberta 02/02/2014 at 05:12

        James – I’m with you brother. But here in Canada most are happy with the way things are and can’t bother thinking about any kind of significant societal change.

        Live the revolution!

    • Well Dressed Dad 01/02/2014 at 19:52

      Brian, “Made in the USA” is also an interesting topic, and quite likely as abused as the “Made in Britain” hype. I was just reading about sweatshops in New York, staffed by immigrants and producing for high-end companies like Donna Karan. Somehow hard to imagine that this would also be happening in the West, but obviously the greed and disregard to workers welfare is almost universal.

      Regarding Red Wing boots, I’d be interested in finding out more about their factory. I may be labouring under a misapprehension, but given that their boots are priced in line with shoes made in Britain, I’d like to think that the factory that makes them operates in an ethical manner.

      And of course, your point about buying more than we need is valid, and likely material for a future post!

      • Brian in Alberta 02/02/2014 at 04:57

        Nicholas, you said “… but obviously the greed and disregard to workers welfare is almost universal.” That pretty much sums up the global apparel industry as it is currently structured and North American is not immune from abuses. But you did use the word “almost” in your statement and this is where being an informed consumer comes in. Over the last few years I have made a concerted effort to know under what conditions the cloths I buy are made. And I scrutinize North American made goods just as thoroughly as I do products from else where in the world. There are companies everywhere that do better than average with regard to labour and environmental practices. But it often takes some digging to find them.

        With regard to ethics, Red Wing is no better or worse than most of it’s domestic competitors. I’m not exactly sure how they compare to British manufacturers but it is my understanding that labour practices and production line wages in the apparel industry are more or less comparable between the U.K., U.S. and Canada when adjusted for their respective economies.

        I look forward to reading what you have to say about the buying habits of menswear enthusiasts. But I probably won’t like it 🙂

  • Well Dressed Dad 01/02/2014 at 19:20

    Obviously valid points from both James and Brian, and thank you to both of you for commenting!

    The world is indeed driven by the need (or greed) for profit, and without this yardstick of success many companies are suddenly deemed not viable and must close down. The “grow or die” maxim must surely be one of the sadder sides of our society.

    So, yes, as things currently are, profit is king. Yet should we unquestioningly accept this? And not celebrate those companies that may have a slightly different focus?

    With Peak Oil, global warming, overpopulation, food shortages and many other serious problems looming on the horizon, it may seem trivial to focus on fashion in this way, but given how many of these things are interconnected through human greed and ignorance, we can all start somewhere.

    And in my small way, that’s what I’m trying to do through blogging about it.

  • Chris In Manchester UK. 02/02/2014 at 17:15

    In the words of the song… ‘Money makes the world go around…’ There has been an unfortunate time and economic lag in the development of many countries. Some may say due to colonisation and empire building. With the emerging economies now seeking to establish a world status, and industrial business for export/home consumption, perhaps it’s necessary for them to start to dictate terms yo the earlier developers? To say ‘No’ we will not make a t shirt for you at £1 wholesale. However, the continual reinvention, and reselling of trends back to consumers, necessitates a less than tacit understanding of each persons/businesses part in the cycle.
    Convincing a cheaply supplied market to pay more is a challenge. The question is, perhaps, can a country, or continent, become compassionate, or display widespread altruism?

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